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China high

Smokin Moose

Fallen Cannabis Warrior
A Canadian traveller barters, smokes and climbs his way to China's highest highs.

It was the Christmas holiday's, 1998. I had two weeks off work and nothing better to do than hunt for heights and herbs in Yunnan province, People's Republic of China. The heights I knew were there; the peaks around Lijiang reach 5600 metres. As for the herbs, the Lonely Planet guide discreetly mentions their presence around Dali. So off I went on a mission, to get high in a literal/ physical/spiritual sense and escape the mundane rigors of a responsible job in Southeast China.

Leaves & seeds

Getting high on cannabis while in China is a relatively rare event, depending on your location. In some bigger cities the right connection can line up a score, and in some places in the countryside hemp can be found growing wild or is cultivated for seed.

During my stay in China, I had planned ahead and brought a few of Marc Emery's seeds with me. Bringing a small handful of seeds across the border is basically a no-risk affair, so a few Arizona Big Bud plants (unfortunately small and ill-nourished) provided me with at least a bit of leaf smoke for my mental health. But I knew there was local cannabis somewhere in Yunnan, hence my mission.

Dali, in north-west Yunnan, was my first stop: a popular tourist place with rumors of herb. Dali is an interesting old town above Erhai Lake and under the Cangshan mountains, with the streets offering the usual blend of markets, cafes and street hawkers.

On my first day there I discovered two examples of Chinese cannabis culture. First, while wandering aimlessly along a minor street, I was confronted by an 8 foot cannabis plant growing alongside the wall of a house. Alas, it was a male. Even so, I plucked a handful of ripening top leaves and dried them on the edge of a sunny window of my guesthouse. The next day I added them to the small bag of homegrown I had with me for a new blend.

Ban Wan Guest House: 2300 metres high and climbing.
Later that day, while prowling through the crowds and around the stalls of the local Sunday market, I almost stumbled over a huge sack of seeds. A middle-aged peasant woman sat behind the open sack, reaching in every minute for a few to pop into her mouth. She expertly cracked them with her teeth, then spat out the husks. We all know what good stuff hemp seeds and seed oils contain, and here the locals were using them as a food source. We also know the THC content of seeds is pretty low, but the lady seemed to be a mellow, serene sort, as she sat eating her wares.

"Ma?" (hemp), I asked her, pointing to her big stash of seeds. "Dui," (correct) she pronounced, popping a few more in her mouth. "Duo shao yi jin?" (how much for 900 grams) I queried. "Ba quai." (8 renminbi, about $1) she responded, placidly spitting out more husks. But I was in search of a more combustible way to get high, so off I went.

As I walked away, I did a bit of mental math. If I could get a 20kg bag of those seeds back to BC, I could flog them off as Yunnan Shangri-La Seeds. Say 200,000 seeds, maybe $50 for 10; a quick million bucks? Fortunately my wiser and straighter self prevailed and I continued in search of smoke.
Score one harsh buzz

Later the same day, while sitting in a cafe nursing a big bottle of Chinese beer, my opportunity to score walked in the door. This lady had been after me on the street earlier, hassling me to purchase some of her trinkets. "Bu yao!" (don't want) I exclaimed again. Finally seeing the futility of her attempts, she leaned forward and whispered in reasonable English "You want ganja?" My ears perked up and I quickly answered in the affirmative. "Shhh..." she said. "Come with me, one minute away."

A short walk down a back alley brought us to her room, where she pulled out a big plastic shopping bag of ganja. It looked just like the Mexican I used to buy 30 years ago: leaves, stems, occasional female tops with lots of seeds. But a person didn't have the option to be choosy here!

I transferred about an ounce to a smaller bag, then nearly dropped it when she said "100 renmibi," ($12). I had been expecting maybe 10-20 rmb. I tried my best to barter down the price to 50 rmb., but she was firm. She must have smelled the money in my pocket and my desire to score. As I needed a good stash for the next part of my trip, I had to buck up, rip-off or not. A while later in the evening, a few pipefuls confirmed my suspicions: harsh and low quality, but there was THC in there, and a buzz is a buzz!

From gorge to guesthouse

Early the next day saw me on a local bus to Lijiang and then, the next day after, on to the small town of Daju. Spectacular mountain and valley scenes presented themselves at every turn of the bumpy and dusty road. Several passes over 3000 metres were crossed, ending with a long drop and endless hairpin turns down to the picturesque valley of Daju. Here was the eastern start of Tiger Leaping Gorge, my next adventure.

A Swede and a Dutchman piled off the bus with me and into the small cafe by the station for lunch. As the Swede and I loaded up the pipe for a few hits (oddly, the guy from Amsterdam didn't smoke) the friendly lady proprietor walked over with a shoebox full of leaf and said, "Try this." She forced a handful on both of us and refused any payment! It was green and a bit harsh, but again, into the stash bag it went.

Thus inspired, off I went to start the trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Recently named a World Natural Heritage Site, it has a well-deserved popularity with adventurous souls from around the world. It is one of the deepest canyons in the world, with the Yangze river cascading through a narrow slot at about 1700 metres. and the seemingly vertical walls soaring up to snow covered peaks at 5600 metres.

After crossing the gorge in a rubber boat, a short few hours brought me to the welcome site of Wan Qu's GuestHouse and the promise of cold beers and a spliff. Sure enough, a bag of the proprietor's home stash and a pipe lay on the table, free for sampling. Again, nothing spectacular, but the real trip was laying back in the sun and soaking in the atmosphere of this serene and sensational piece of Yunnan scenery.

The next morning it was ganja pancakes for breakfast, a specialty of the house. After waiting for a kick-start, I was set up for a leisurely walk, pacing the sun's progress down to the rapids, 400 metres below. A mellow afternoon evolved, camped on a boulder and pondering the simplicity and complexity of the whole scene. Only the cold beer calling me from up the trail aroused me from such contemplation.

A high, careful walk

Two days later, Christmas day, I was set to get higher than ever. A walk up from the Ban Wan GuestHouse at 2300 metres put me to a high pass at over 4000 metres, just below some impressive peaks. In the thin air and huddled against a cool breeze, I had my satisfying lunch of dried yak meat, beer and a spliff. There was no room for error in a situation like this; a simple sprained ankle would be serious. There was absolutely no one around and it was a vertical mile back to "civilization" down a rough trail.

When you get high — in both senses of the word — in a wilderness situation like this, a good degree of caution is advised. Luckily, I had trained myself in many similar trips in the high mountains of Canada, so my progress down was uneventful and I arrived safely back to beer and ganja pancakes.

Score two, a bit better

After five fine and eventful days in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, I eventually stumbled into the noise and jumble of Qiaotou, at the western end of gorge. The advice around was that a person could score at the Peaceful Cafe. Sure enough, on the last page of the menu was a bold and clear message: "If you want ganja ask Xiao Hu."

So while waiting for the bus back to Lijiang, I asked for a chance to dip into the big bag of the proprietor. The seedy buds looked a bit better than my previous scores, so I grabbed a generous handful. "How much?" I asked, hoping not to get ripped off like in Dali. "You say," she replied confidently. "10 rmb?" I questioned. "OK," she replied quickly, so I think we were both satisfied with the transaction. Into my bag it went and I now had a mix of five different kinds of herb.

Jade Dragon Joints

Lijiang is an excellent place to waste away a few days. There is a funky old town with canals running through the streets, clean air, great views and the local Naxi culture is very well preserved. So I spent four days just hanging out and exploring the streets, alleys, cafes and markets.

Now lighting up in the wilds of Yunnan is one thing, discretion was not a real concern as the Public Security Bureau were a long way off. However, to light up a pipe or spliff in more public places would definitely attract some unwanted attention, like jail and deportation. Hence the introduction of my special Jade Dragon Joints.

Every area of China has local brands of cigarettes and Jade Dragon (named after the imposing local peak) was my choice. Since rolling papers are non-existent in most of China, you have to empty out the tobacco and reload them with your own "blend". Thus disguised, discretion is assured. Lighting up an innocent filter tip is a no-risk affair almost anywhere. I smoked up in the markets, cafes, parks, and buses and never had any curious glances.

China's highest high

The finale of the trip was now upon me: my mission to get higher than I had ever been! After years of mountaineering in the BC Rockies, my personal altitude record was only a mere 4000 metres, plus a quick dash up Mt Rainer at 4400 metres. Now at my disposal was a new Swiss-built cable car up the east side of Jade Snow Dragon Mountain.

So on New Year's Day, in the early morning light, I set off to accomplish my task. The bottom station was at 3400 metres, and the cable car climbed rapidly to 4500. The views up to the peaks and glacier and back down to the valley were phenomenal. I raced out of the top station, already higher than ever, and climbed (much more slowly) up the snowfields to the edge of a serac-strewn glacier at 4600 metres (15,000 feet). In the brilliant sunshine and thin air I pulled out a Jade Dragon Joint and fired up. I was as high as I could get in Yunnan, and just a bit higher, literally and figuratively.

For further exploration...

For those with a spirit of adventure and a desire to venture into an easily accessed but totally wild part of China, as well as a chance to score some local herb - I "highly" recommend NW Yunnan. While the smoke won't blow you away, the natural beauty of the area surely will! Add to that the clean air, friendly folks, a fascinating minority culture and relatively cheap food and travel.

If you're travelling around East Asia and intend to dip in for a taste of China, you could (and probably would) do a lot worse than this herb-friendly part of Yunnan.

There are also areas of wild hemp in Shandong province. Tai Shan is the most holy of the five sacred mountains in China. Millions of Buddhist and Taoist believers climb the 7,000 stone steps to pray and leave offerings. Over the centuries, many of the offerings were grains, including hemp, as they believed the birds would carry the seeds as their prayers to the deities. Now, the area near the top of Tai Shan is covered with a short variety of wild cannabis that has adapted to the mountain climate.

After my successful Yunnan trip, it seems like Tai Shan will be an obvious choice for an Easter trip to continue my quest to explore the heights and cannabis culture of China.

The following information has been adapted from articles by Robert Clarke and Chinese co-authors, published by the Journal of the International Hemp Association.

Ancient Chinese Cannabis

Cannabis has a long history of cultivation in China, dating back as far as 5000-6000 years. It was grown along with millet, wheat, beans and rice in the earliest Neolithic farming communities and was regarded as one of the main crops in ancient China.

Until cotton was introduced to China about 1000 years ago, cannabis was the main cloth worn, a fact proven by both ancient texts and archeological discoveries. Pure cannabis textiles were found in tombs dating back to 1700 BC, and imprints of cannabis textiles and cordage on pottery fragments have been carbon dated to about 4000 BC.

Paper was another cannabis product long in use in China. The oldest piece of paper in the world was recovered from a tomb in Shaanxi dating to about 100 BC. A tomb in Xinjiang offered up white cannabis paper shoes sewn with white cannabis thread, dating to 1100 AD.

The use of cannabis seed for food is also well documented as far back as 200 BC. It was placed as one of the "five grains" of ancient China along with barley, rice, wheat and soybeans. Cannabis remained a staple of the diet until the 10th century when other higher quality grains became widespread. Hemp seeds have often been found in storage jars inside tombs.

Modern Chinese Cannabis

Cannabis has been cultivated in nearly every province and climatic zone of China. It is still used in some areas for making rope, clothes and other textiles. The seeds are pressed for oil, or eaten raw or roasted as snacks between meals (especially in NW Yunnan). Tibetans also mix seeds in buttered tea.

Some plants in Xinjiang and Yunnan are illicitly planted for smoking, but cannabis smoking is not popular or widespread among Chinese.

Chinese hospitals rarely, if ever use cannabis as a medicine because it is falsely considered addicting, although traditional pharmacists do use cleaned hemp seeds in some herbal stomach remedies.

Chinese growers realize that the female plants are used for smoking and contain more medicinal properties. In specific areas where more of the drug plants are grown (Kasgar, Hetian and Asku in Xinjiang) the upper inflorescences, younger leaves and resin gland secretions are used for making cigarettes.

On the other side of China, in Shandong province among others, there is a small but thriving modern hemp industry cultivating for fibre.

- The International Hemp Association can be contacted at: IHA, Postbus 75007, 1070 AA Amsterdam, Netherlands; tel 31-20-618-8758; iha@euronet.nl.

by Greg Allen
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